James Lawton: A sad retreat from Moscow for Ronaldo and United

The seeds of the Portuguese prodigy's departure were sown at the scene of his greatest triumph, and since flouncing out of the Champions League final last year, he seemed to care only for himself
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Good riddance to so much of what Cristiano Ronaldo became but then, of course, more regrets than we can comfortably list here that the best of him, at least as far as Manchester United were concerned, had gone some time before they publicly accepted yesterday the £80m offer of Real Madrid.

This, we have to believe, buttressed, along with a working profit of around £68m, Sir Alex Ferguson's disappointment that somewhere along the line he could no longer talk the language, or walk the swaggering walk, of the most brilliantly gifted protégé he is ever likely to know.

Yes, it is true Ronaldo had a range of gifts which undoubtedly gave him that distinction, and if it is also right that some of us were never likely to be argued out of the belief that in instinctive genius he would always live in the shadow of the late George Best, there is no doubt that at this moment the 24-year-old Portuguese is in some ways quite irreplaceable.

Yet for so much of last season it was plain that replaced he had to be. Not because he had lost, despite the consistent brilliance of Lionel Messi, all claims to being the best player on earth. Not because he had shed the capacity to strike opponents dead in one moment of blazing power or virtuosity. No, it was that something had unbalanced his playing nature quite seriously.

Mere narcissism wasn't the problem. Best wasn't exactly invaded by personal modesty, once declaring, "If I had been born ugly you would never have heard of Pele," and nor was he always a paragon of the team concept. But Best never made his team-mates or his fans believe that he was operating under sufferance, that he was too sexy for his shirt. That, in the last year or so, was the overwhelming impression created by Ronaldo.

At the first great pinnacle of his career, which came last year at the age of 23 when he collected his Champions League medal, he could hardly have separated himself more wilfully from the embrace of a triumphant team. No, he said, he could not give any promises for the future.

He didn't make such things, not even to his mother. He flounced out of the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow and anyone who saw that performance knew that deep down the story of Ronaldo and United, the uplifting one of beautifully achieved mutual goals, was just about over.

Though 18 Premier League goals last season could not be described as abdication something in his body language was precisely that. If he cared, he seemed to announce with scarcely a breath of ambivalence, it was for himself rather than the cause.

Who knows, Ronaldo may find a new lease of ambition and commitment at the Bernabeu in the re-birth of the galacticos culture and certainly the challenge, alongside Kaka, of wresting La Liga away from Barcelona's silky grasp, looks like a sure-fire provocation for some of the levels of achievement he touched the season before last.

Yet in other respects the portents are not so good. Real Madrid, as Liverpool underlined with some emphasis, have been for some time pretty much a rabble when compared to the standards set by Barça and, for that matter, United. Do either Kaka or Ronaldo have, beyond their extra-ordinary individual gifts, the mentalities to impose the kind of match-in, match-out standards of professional discipline it will take to lift Real back among the serious contenders?

It is a question which in Ronaldo's case particularly does not permit the most confident of answers. However, even in his dog days at Old Trafford plainly the last of his appetites to decline was his lust for acclamation and there will certainly be no shortage of that if he makes an early splash in Madrid. United fans were, understandably enough, mostly philosophical yesterday, at least those who were not gripped by the fear that the Ronaldo profits would disappear into the sinkhole of corporate debt rather than the vital re-seeding of a team which displayed some rather shocking deficiencies in the Stadio Olimpico in Rome last month once Barça found the nerve to score.

Elsewhere the collective shrug merely reflected the fact that the messages Ronaldo had been sending out for some time had been received and understood. He wanted to move on. He wanted another theatre, another place to parade his beauty and his skill. So it goes, especially when the superhero so often seems to forget that football isn't a beauty parade but a unified effort built most successfully on the foundations of consistency and respect.

For every game Ronaldo illuminated with his skill and power, there was another from which he exiled himself on the merest whim. Yes, he received a lot of physical attention, but any more than Best or Pele or Maradona, who existed on pain-killers for so much of his career? Those who see a difference between the meaning of such players and Ronaldo are accused of some in-built prejudice, but the reality is that in some vital ways he does not represent the full range of those assets normally consigned to a great player.

No doubt he has many of them, certainly more than enough in the taste of many to compensate for his reluctance to correct a mistake that piled pressure on his team-mates, his terrible diving tendency and his apparent belief that only some dark conspiracy separated him from uninterrupted glory. No doubt these negative aspects of a most formidable talent will be softened in the memory of Old Trafford by the years. Not even his most strenuous critics can deny that the Ronaldo years were marked more than anything by a growing sense that any achievement was possible.

But that was the best of his years, when his talent flew with the joy of a suddenly released bird. In Madrid the cage door may swing open again, but if it does there need be no doubts about the good sense of yesterday's business. At Old Trafford the cage door had been effectively closed for some time, and by nobody's hand but Cristiano Ronaldo's.